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Jack Smith

Retracing the steps with his traveling companions in the long journey back to life

January 30, 1985

One morning when I was fit to drive again I decided to pay a visit to the County-USC Medical Center, historically known as General Hospital.

I could see it from our windows. It had always been a landmark on my personal orbit, its modern Gothic towers still dominating the horizon to the southeast. A few degrees to the west I could see the tower of City Hall, and just across the street from it, hidden behind our hill, was the Times Building, which had anchored my life for 31 years.

Exactly one mile to the west of The Times was Belmont High School, from which, in the summer of 1934, I had gone forth with such high purpose to fulfill the school's motto: "Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve."

How small indeed had been my orbit, after the few years of adventuring that ended with World War II.

It would have been fitting enough, I suppose, if I had died in the emergency room at County-USC, but they didn't let me. It wasn't in the script.

So I wanted to go back and see the rooms in which, in six days, they had brought me back from the dead to "alert and talkative"--which is what I'm like when I'm alive.

I wanted to say thanks to some of the people who had done this.

I remembered nothing of the first two days, and only bits and pieces of the other four, though my recovery had been regarded as "remarkable."

I had phoned Adelaida De La Cerda, of the hospital's public information staff, who had been so helpful to my wife, and she met me at the head of the ambulance ramp, where I had entered.

Immediately I was in the unprepossessing chamber to which the paramedics had delivered me, and looking down on the very bed on which I had lain between life and death a few weeks earlier.

I met Marsha Hollinger, the nurse who had talked me in by radio, telling the paramedics what to do for me; and Will Idsten, the young resident, who had ordered the electric shocks that brought me back to life. He reminded me of the young Dr. Kildare--still boyish and handsome, right out of the college yearbook.

We took an elevator up to the intensive care unit, as I had. Miss De La Cerda pointed out the room I had occupied. It was empty and being repainted a sort of pale yellow. I wouldn't have remembered it if it had had purple elephants on the wall.

I met two of the doctors who had pulled me through, and two smiling nurses. They said they remembered me, and were glad to see me on my feet. I remembered them, too, from my last, alert days. There was Dr. Dan Kulick, the short, dark one; and Dr. Uri El Kayam, the tall, handsome one who had seemed to be in charge.

When they first swam into my consciousness they would be looking down at me, sometimes with two or three colleagues, studying my charts, or standing off talking about me, what to do, making decisions. There always seemed to be an urgency in these conferences, the others urging some course of action and El Kayam deciding quickly, yes or no. They reminded me of a head coach and his assistants during the two-minute drill in a big football game. My wife had been right about Dr. El Kayam; he was as handsome as an old-time movie star--as elegant as Paul Henreid in "Now, Voyager."

Miss De La Cerda had made out a list of staff members involved--people with such names as Reiko Kageyama, emergency area administrator; Vicki Unatin RN; Shanburdin Rahimtoola, chief physician; Kulick, El Kayam, Precy Valdez RN, and Elsa Tampuyas RN.

What a cosmopolitan mix, brought together at this highest level of professional and technological skill. How lucky Los Angeles was to have attracted such people from so many other places. And how lucky for a man named Smith that they were there when I needed them.

There were others. I remember a woman doctor, whom my sons much admired; and two contract nurses, John Grey and Penny Lazenby, who alternated 12-hour watches on my arterial pump.

Two days after my visit I received a letter from Nurse Unatin, saying she was sorry she had missed me. She was away at a seminar.

"Caring for you and treating you was one of the most frightening and rewarding experiences that I've had in the emergency room," she said.

"When you arrived in our facility you were extremely short of breath, stating repeatedly (while still possessing enough breath to speak) that you could not breathe.

"When your heart stopped, I, under the direction of Dr. Idsten, shocked (defibrillated) your heart twice. After many cardiac-arrest drugs your heart began to beat and you had a pulse. That was a thrilling moment for all of us. . . ."

"There were many people involved in your return to life, especially in the days that followed, but you're the one who did it, and gave us all such a reward. Thank you and please stay well and with us for a long time. . . ."

How is that for a poignant message?

To Nurse Unatin, and Dr. Idsten, and Drs. Kulick and El Kayam and Nurses Valdez and Tampuyas, and all the others, I give not only my thanks, but thanks for all the thousands who routinely receive such care at that magnificent place.

I am glad it was on my orbit.

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